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From Leonard Cohen to David Bowie: The 5 best songs inspired by poetry

The relationship between poetry and music is a longstanding one. One could almost say you can’t have one without the other, traditionally and in contemporary times. The poetry of legends within the English canon such as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, and yes, William Shakespeare have all been set to music. The works of these three have been utilised by Jah Wobble, Aaron Copland and Donovan respectively.

The influence of this convergence is everywhere and to varying degrees of effect and quality. However, it is the ones of real substance that make the most impact. The influence that poetry has had on songwriting is undoubtedly massive, particularly when we look at the way it has coloured a lot of our favourite songwriters’ careers.

In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the illustrious Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Building on this, Patti Smith, who in many respects can be seen as paving the way for the CBGB explosion, has come to be known as the “punk poet laureate”. Furthermore, across the Atlantic, performance poet John Cooper Clarke’s work has been musically augmented by legends such as Martin Hannett and Pete Shelley.

Join us then, as we take a more forensic look at the partnership of poetry and music. We’ve compiled a list of classics that take inspiration from poetry. There is no shortage, given that the characters and narratives of poems lend themselves to music, the phrase “music is language” springs to mind. Moreover, expect to see some of the greats from the past fifty years.

The best songs inspired by poetry:

5. Leonard Cohen – ‘Alexandra Leaving’ 2001

Leonard Cohen has always been known as somewhat of a poet himself. One of his hallmarks was channelling his poetic narratives into his music. However, even the very best take inspiration from somewhere. Track six from Cohen’s tenth album, Ten New Songs ‘Alexandra Leaving’, is inspired by Egyptian Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. This Greek inspiration should not come as a surprise as Cohen’s love for the country, and in particular, the island of Hydra is well documented.

Entitled The God Abandons Antony, Cavafy’s poem was published in 1911. Showing the recycled nature of literature, it refers to the esteemed middle platonic philosopher Plutarch’s story of Mark Antony’s last stand in Alexandria. Plutarch’s text tells of how Antony, who was besieged in Alexandria by the vengeful Octavian, had lost the city, and was deserted by his the god Bacchus/Dionysus, Antony’a protector. We all know how this story ends.

Cohen changes the city Alexandria to a woman called Alexandra, steeping the song in pathos. Once more, his marriage of poetry and music is effective. The song is a soft, mediation augmented by Cohen’s poetic lyrics and baritone voice.

4. Joni Mitchell – ‘If’ 2007

Featuring a jazz-inflected composition, Joni Mitchell’s ‘If’ takes its title directly from Rudyard Kipling’s prom ‘If-‘.

The 1895 poem is written in the form of paternal advice to the poet’s son, John. It talks about a British Colonial statesman in South Africa who led an unsuccessful coup and it has been considered the world’s most successful poem, and has been translated into 27 languages. In the UK, it was also voted ‘the nation’s favourite poem’ in a 1995 poll.

Mitchell’s song is haunting, and her composition reflects the haunting subject matter.

3. PJ Harvey – ‘Angelene’ 1998

The opening track from PJ Harvey‘s fourth album Is This Desire?, ‘Angelene’ is a bit of a Russian doll of a song. The line, “Rose is my colour, and white / Pretty mouth and green my eyes” is taken from a poem written by a character in J.D. Salinger’s short story Pretty Mouth And Green My Eyes.

Salinger’s story is in keeping with the disturbing excellence of the album, and Harvey’s penchant for the dark subject matter. The main character, Arthur, is a lawyer who discovers his wife’s infidelities, whereas Harvey switches it up, and her titular character is a prostitute who longs for real love.

Whilst much has been said about the album, with Harvey’s long-time friend and collaborator John Parish saying it was “probably the most compromised album that Polly’s made”, ‘Angelene’ is a bonafide classic.

2. David Bowie ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – 1970

An absolute classic. The first convergence between Bowie and future Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, this song also entered iconic status after Kurt Cobain and Nirva covered it for MTV Unplugged in 1993.

The song is thought to be partially autobiographical. Ziggy Stardust was starting to take his hold on Bowie and so the lyrics are about a man who is struggling to come to terms with his changing identity. However, some of the lyrics are based on the poem The Psychoed by American poet Hugh Mearns. Bowie’s lyrics bear many resemblances to the poem’s, mentioning “a man who was not there”, wishing “that man would go away”.

These poetic lyrics would take on another life form as Bowie struggled with the fame the Ziggy character brought.

1. The Doors – ‘Not to Touch the Earth’ 1968

The Doors owed so much to literature. Frontman Jim Morrison was a prolific poet in his own right, and the band’s name derives from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

‘Not to Touch the Earth’ is heard on the band’s posthumous album, An American Prayer. The song was originally part of a 24-minute song based on Morrison’s poem, The Celebration Of The Lizard. The full song was dropped from the album. Furthermore, the title and opening lines of the song were taken from Aftermath: A Supplement To The Golden Bough by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.